Picture this: in a moment of drunken foolishness, you invited a brilliant cook, or a famous chef, or the best caterer on earth, to dinner. Now you're gazing bleakly into your fridge, scratching your head and wondering how you're going to whip up a jus, a froth, and a parfait of double-glazed liver of Galapagos Partridge Napped with Sea-Urchin Reduction, using only potatoes, an elderly carrot, and a few fossils of Cheddar.
This wasn't exactly my situation last Wednesday, but it came close. My old friend Bertrand, who occasionally drops in for dinner when he's in Johannesburg for a night, en route to Burundi, is a brilliant cook with a very fine palate (he's French, duh). It's not that Bert's fussy or snobby - not in the least - but he is a foodie of note, and he's someone who takes the greatest care, and makes a huge effort (thanks for those fresh crayfish, Bert!) whenever he invites me and my ilk to dinner at his home in Cape Town.
So what to make? How would I warm the cockles of Bertrand's heart? Well, experience has taught me that the way to the heart of a real cook is to choose a dead-simple, heart-warming, honest country dish, to cook it slowly and lovingly, and to use the very best ingredients.
I have always followed the wonderful advice given by Fay Maschler and Elizabeth Jane Howard in their book Cooking for Occasions. Ruminating about the worry of having a famous chef or cook to dinner, they write, in their chapter 'Having a Roux Brother to Dinner':
'Imagining, having, say, a Roux brother to dinner fleshes out the worry of inviting someone to your house whose knowledge and skills in connection with food you assume to be vastly superior to your own. What you must keep in mind when faced with this scenario is that professional cooks and chefs value well-sourced, wholesome ingredients treated simply and respectfully. In their own life they come across too much teased and tormented "luxury" food... and they like nothing better than a dish such as plainly roasted chicken served with its buttery juices and a watercress salad and a homely pudding such as a carefully made creamy rice pudding. They are thrilled to have the tables turned and are usually ready to love everything you put in front of them, exclaiming over perfectly ordinary assemblies as if it had never occurred to them to prepare them.'
And that's a useful piece of advice. Bert really liked this (whew) and so did my other foodie friend Mike Karamanof (another whew!), who dropped in just as I whipped the dish out of the oven.
This is my version of an Italian dish of wild boar with potatoes that I saw being prepared on Rick Stein's TV series Mediterranean Escapes; the dish was traditionally cooked by soldiers, said Stein, between two shields. It's dead simple, with few ingredients, and no extra liquid: very similar, in fact, to a Lancashire Hotpot.
This dish serves 10-12, but is easily halved.
Slow-Cooked Pork Neck with Potatoes, Thyme, Lemon and Garlic
2/3 cup (160 ml) good olive oil
10 big potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-cm slices
2 big onions, peeled, halved vertically and thinly sliced
2 pork necks (2.4 kg, about 1.2 kg each), trimmed of excess fat and cut vertically into 10-mm 'steaks'.
8 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and finely sliced
6 sprigs of fresh thyme (sage is also good, but use only two sprigs)
1 cup (250 ml) chopped flat-leaf parsley
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a knob of butter
Preheat the oven to 130°C. Pour a little olive oil into the bottom of a big cast-iron pot or casserole dish. Add a single layer of sliced potatoes and one-third of the sliced onions. Season with a little salt and pepper. Now put 4-5 slices of pork on top and sprinkle with some sliced garlic, thyme, parsley, and lemon rind. Squeeze over a little lemon juice and olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Top with another layer of potato slices, and continue layering in the same pattern, finishing with a solid layer of overlapping potato slices.
Cut a circle of tin foil to the same size as the dish, butter it generously, and place it, butter side down, directly on the top layer of potatoes. Place a heavy plate or dish on top of the foil, so that the contents of the casserole are are weighed down. Place the dish in the oven and cook at 130°C for three to four hours, or until the pork is meltingly tender and you can pull it apart with a fork. Do not stir or mix the dish.
Remove the plate and tin foil. Brush the top layer of potato with a little more olive oil and butter, squeeze over some lemon juice and season well with salt and pepper. Turn the oven up to 180°C and cook for 3/4 hour, or until the potato topping is golden and crispy.
Serve with Slow-Baked Cherry Tomatoes, a fresh rocket salad, and some sharp mustard.